Some months ago, you may have read about a study conducted by researchers from Princeton and Northwestern Universities, which concluded that the United States has become an oligarchy. That is, the US government passes legislation and acts on the behalf of the wealthiest individuals and corporations in the nation. That isn’t to say that the government always acts against the will of The People. But that the will of The People is obeyed only when it is also aligned with the will of The Wealthy. In short, it’s official. Money runs Washington. Not us.
When I read this, I was saddened. I was saddened, because I should have felt shocked or outraged, and I didn’t. I felt like it was quiet confirmation of something I knew all along. When I read the report, I fact-checked it with as many sources as I could, looked hard at the report, but I knew as I was doing so we had long ago turned a corner in this country. I should have been shaking my fist. Instead, I was just shaking my head.
And just in time for the midterm elections! Like dozens of my fellow Americans, I went to the polls last Tuesday to cast my vote, but it was with an ever-increasing sense of futility. Honestly, the real reason I voted was because I knew I’d feel guilty if I didn’t. All the usual talk about making my voice heard just rang hollow. I didn’t think it mattered, at least not at the state or national level, and there were no local issues or candidates on my ballot. I felt like I was validating a broken system. Like voting was a pedestrian “Press for Walk Signal” button that wasn’t connected to anything, or the “Door Close” button on an elevator. Just there to make us yokels feel like we had some power, to keep us distracted. I didn’t feel like a citizen. I felt like a sap.
And since it was Tuesday night, I went to my local brewpub afterward for dinner and a pint, and to write my weekly letter to The Knucklehead, away at school. This would be the first election in which my son was eligible to vote. How could I, as a parent, write to him about the disillusionment I really felt? How could I lie to him to tell him otherwise?
* * *
It was easier for my own parents, at least for a while. We’ve always been distrustful of politicians in this country, but there was a time when we had more faith in the process. We had this idea that if they got too crooked in Washington, we could march, or write letters, or, yes, vote, and we could still keep a handle on things. And even if we weren’t always sure about the people we elected, there was still faith in the office. I remember my parents telling me that even if they hadn’t voted for the current president, he was still the president, and deserving of our respect.
And then, Watergate.
I was 11 that summer. I remember it was summer, because I spent most of it indoors that year, watching the hearings on TV. They were addictive television, even to an 11-year-old: reality television and courtroom drama all rolled into one. With a jowly, grandfatherly host named Sam Ervin who looked sleepy as a frog on a lily pad, and was twice as quick. I watched the Nixon presidency slowly unravel on live television. I watched with my mother, who was my political companion for every election night, every political convention, and (especially) every Mark Russell special.
I didn’t have a lot of questions for my mother, because I didn’t know what to ask. The intricacies of the accusations and timelines eluded me, and it would take years for me to unravel even in broad strokes the particulars of the charges against the administration. But the stench of it came through, alright. And as I looked over at my mother, I didn’t like what I saw. I saw a parent bewildered, at a loss. Even then, I saw a parent who didn’t know how to tell her son he should always respect the President, even when I disagreed with him. Whether the previous generation’s idealized version of our democratic process was accurate or not, there was still something nourishing about it. There was a realistic hope to it that this was an attainable ideal, if only we were responsible enough citizens.
None of that matched up with what we were watching on TV that summer. Even after Nixon resigned* there was a disillusionment that never went away. The whole framework was fire-damaged, the smell and the rot to be painted over but never gotten rid of.
Maybe it was like that for the Teapot-Dome generation. Maybe every generation gets its moment of putting away childish beliefs. But looking at my mother’s face, and hearing her silence, I felt that something different was going on. Something she didn’t want to believe herself, much less want to have to explain to her child.
* * *
As I sipped at my beer Tuesday night, these were my thoughts, wondering what I’d write to my son. Knowing he has a keen nose for hypocrisy, but is too thoughtful to call me on it. And, as often happens when I write to The Knucklehead, I was surprised at the words that flowed from my pen:
Be a good citizen. Inform yourself. Do good, volunteer. Think. Care. Empathize. Help out. Love. Spend your money wisely and thoughtfully. Vote with your wallet. Read. Set an example. Speak up. Be alert for things that aren’t right. Be aware of how you affect others.
I had forgotten that voting is only a part of citizenship. It’s a tool we use to make our own lives better, and also to make our communities better for the people we live with. But voting is not the only way to be a good citizen. Maybe it’s not even the most important way. But it’s hardly the only thing left to us.
Maybe voting is broken right now. Maybe representative democracy is broken; I sure don’t see a fix for it on the horizon. But that doesn’t mean we should get out of the habit of voting. If the day ever comes when we’re again heard at the national level, we don’t want to be out of practice. And we can find other, more effective ways in the meantime to practice citizenship. So that if the people we elect ever do turn back to us, we’ll be people deserving of their best efforts. And able to recognize who’s helping and who’s not.
It’s not much to offer The Knucklehead, but it’s honest. Voting might still be the right choice, even if it’s not the effective choice. So what if I feel like a sap? If that’s the only thing it costs me, that’s a small price to pay. I don’t want to risk being at home should it someday make a difference.
*I never bought the line that Ford’s pardoning of Nixon spared this country further pain, not now, not then. All it spared this country was closure. A trial would have been ugly, but we Americans are tough. We could have handled it. It might have even salvaged our faith in justice.